” Twenty-one years ago tonight, television standards plunged further when NBC aired “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground,”a two-hour “documentary” from “journalist” Geraldo Rivera.
The network touted the special as an investigation into crimes and a correlation between heavy metal music and Satanism, but the Washington Post’s Tom Shales had a different description, calling it “dirty-minded teleporn,” filled with “talk about butchered babies, dismembered corpses, cannibal cults and sex orgies.”
He noted the networks had cut their departments of standards and practices, attributing the whittling to “hyped competitiveness fostered by the Reagan administration’s sweeping deregulation” of broadcasting.
NBC began “Devil Worship” at 8 p.m. – the slot it reserved for “ALF,” “The Cosby Show” and “Family Ties” on other nights – requiring frequent interruptions for disclaimers and parental advisories.
As Shales reported, Rivera himself addressed parents during the broadcast: “I am begging you. This subject is just too upsetting for your young children. Please, get them out of the room or change the station!”
NBC’s entertainment division produced “Devil Worship,” triggering much strife within the network.
The news division refused to allow Rivera on “Today” to promote “Devil Worship,” and “Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw told the Los Angeles Times “quasi-news programs cheapens the genuine news product.”
In the days before broadcast, with negative publicity mounting, NBC was forced to sell some commercials at half price.
The Los Angeles Times reported KNBC’s “Devil Worship” broadcast carried just 14 commercials, including two for the National Enquirer and three for new horror movies.
An NBC spokeswoman told the Times the network’s switchboards received 331 complaints in New York and Burbank. (A secretary at the NBC affiliate in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, said it received just one call – from a viewer whose home lost power as the broadcast began and wanted a rerun.)
“Devil Worship” finished fifth in the weekly ratings, with viewers in almost 20 million homes. Only NBC’s “Cosby,” “Cheers” and “A Different World” and CBS’s “60 Minutes” ranked higher.
In his 1992 memoir “The Last Great Ride,” NBC entertainment chief Brandon Tartikoff recalled hiring Rivera after he scored big ratings opening Al Capone’s vault in a live syndicated special in 1986.
Another concession: “Devil Worship” was conceived as a “blunting weapon” to counter the second episode of ABC’s “Roseanne,” which ended up ranking eighth.
Although Tartikoff was apologetic in the days after the “Devil Worship” broadcast, he struck a somewhat defensive tone in his book, noting affiliates received calls and letters from viewers thanking NBC for “exposing this very real problem … infecting their communities.”
Still, Tartikoff wrote, “If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t.”
– TV Time Capsule
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